The Illusionist is a very engaging film as it unfolds, but as time is spent away reflecting upon the story, it doesn't hold up once the trick has been revealed, like most illusions.
Set in 19th century Vienna, Austria, Eisenheim the Illusionist (Edward Norton) is arrested by Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) during a performance, where he appears to be conjuring ghosts, for threats against the Empire and disturbing public order. The crowd is angered.
Uhl reports to Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) about Eisenheim and the majority of the film becomes a flashback. As a young boy (Aaron Johnson) Eisenheim meets an elderly man who performs tricks and this is where it is alleged his interest in magic began. He also makes the acquaintance of Sophie, an upper-class girl whose family isn't happy about her cavorting with the son of a cabinetmaker.
The story jumps forward 15 years as Eisenheim the Illusionist brings his act to Vienna. He astounds audiences with his illusions, including Uhl, who informs Eisenheim he is an amateur magician himself. Prince Leopold attends a performance and when Eisenheim asks for a volunteer, Leopold encourages his fiancée, who turns out to be Sophie (Jessica Biel). They later have a clandestine meeting in a carriage, but are unable to escape the notice of Uhl's men. Eisenheim is invited to conduct a command performance and shows up the prince in front of his guests. Sophie wants to be with Eisenheim but escaping the prince will be tough. He's a powerful man, possibly next in line to be emperor, and Uhl and his men are vigilant.
What's happens during the remainder of the story is captivating as it plays out, and revealing it would ruin a number of surprises for viewers, but once the conclusion is reached, it turns out a good portion of it is unnecessary. The motivations of some characters and their natures come into question, which doesn’t seem to be what the film is about.
I want to revisit The Illusionist with the full knowledge of the story to see what my reaction will be. Luckily, there is so much done right. The performances are very good. The cinematography of Dick Pope is marvelous. I particularly love how the look of the flashbacks evokes old movies with a flicker around the frame edges and hints of sepia. Their production team does a great job evoking the time. Philip Glass delivers a very good soundtrack that is worth owning on its own.